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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 13 June 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Oath, Topical Question Time, Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime, Prejudice and Community Cohesion, Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2015, Human Trafficking and Exploitation, Decision Time, Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002


Topical Question Time

Educational Institute of Scotland (Industrial Action)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to EIS members considering supporting industrial action. (S5T-00587)

The Scottish Government would encourage negotiations in all circumstances on all employment issues to avoid industrial action.

The teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland has today published figures on the pressure that teachers face. Fifty-four per cent of teachers say that their workload has risen in the past year, and a further third say that their workload has increased significantly. Despite all the parliamentary assurances that teacher workload is falling, it is rising. Does that not starkly illustrate that the Government is out of touch with the reality of teaching across Scotland? Will the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills accept that teachers are considering strike action because his improvement plan and his initiatives on tackling bureaucracy have failed to address that pressure in the classroom?

The Government has taken a series of steps to tackle the issue of teacher workload, including the removal of unit assessments, which will apply in the next academic year, and the publication of benchmarks to provide the clarity that the teaching profession has requested on the levels that students are expected to achieve in curriculum for excellence.

We have issued curricular guidance to provide clarity on literacy and numeracy, and health and wellbeing. Those curricular areas should be given priority in the curriculum. I have issued guidance to all teachers that indicates that the teaching profession should be free to concentrate on learning and teaching, and on enhancing learning and teaching for young people across the education system.

In addition, I commissioned Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education to audit the burden of bureaucracy that was applied to schools by local authorities. As Mr Scott will realise, about half of local authorities were identified in the inspection as having work to do to reduce the workload that was being applied to schools, and a reduction in bureaucracy is now being undertaken.

I encourage Mr Scott to look at the various measures that the Government has taken to reduce the workload on teachers and ensure that they are free to concentrate on what we need them to concentrate on, which is learning and teaching.

Surely the point is that we have looked at the initiatives that the Government has brought forward, and yet the figures from the EIS today illustrate that, far from going down, the workload is increasing. In 2014, an EIS survey said that 44 per cent of teachers would not recommend teaching as a profession. The latest survey, which was also published today, suggests that the figure has risen to 56 per cent.

In two days’ time, the education secretary will propose school reform. Will he accept that Thursday’s statement must now include a far-reaching independent assessment of teachers’ pay and conditions—a McCrone 2? Does he accept that the 16 per cent cut in teachers’ wages over the past decade should be repaired; that the promotion structure in schools should be reviewed; and that the standing of the profession—the most important profession for Scotland’s future—should be enhanced and should not be allowed to wither any further?

I certainly agree with Mr Scott that we need to enhance the teaching profession. The statement that I will make to Parliament on Thursday will outline a number of very substantive steps to enhance the professional responsibility of teachers and to enable teachers to fulfil the role that we all require them to fulfil in delivering education for young people in Scotland.

Secondly, I acknowledge that there has been constraint in public sector pay for some considerable time. I cannot deny—and I make no attempt to do so—that I was the author of the public sector pay policy in Scotland as the finance minister. However, Mr Scott needs to reflect on the fact that he was a supporter of the United Kingdom Government that presided over austerity for five years, which created the financial climate in which this Government has had to operate.

If we are all accepting responsibility, as I do as the author of the public pay sector policy in Scotland for many years, Mr Scott must accept that the challenges that exist on teachers’ pay and public sector pay in general have not been the product of individual decisions by this Government but are the product of the financial climate that he and his colleagues in the Liberal Democrats were prepared to support in the United Kingdom Government for five years without complaint.

Finally, I say to Mr Scott that the Government is determined to work with the profession, other stakeholders and our local authority partners to strengthen Scottish education. That will be at the heart of the reforms that I take forward. Indeed, that approach has been at the heart of the measures that I have taken to reduce bureaucracy and to focus the curriculum, and I will continue to take that approach in the period ahead.

In the light of the first part of the answer that Mr Swinney has given to Tavish Scott, does he foresee an opportunity in the governance reforms and in the greater autonomy for schools to allow greater devolution of pay structures and working conditions to headteachers?

One of the points that I made when I introduced the governance consultation paper to Parliament some months ago was that I envisaged the continuation of national terms and conditions discussions. That will be my position in my statement on the governance review on Thursday; it was my position at the outset.

On the other details of the governance review, I will be making a statement to Parliament on Thursday and I will answer members’ questions to me on the details at that time.

We read today in the press that a welcome additional £2 million is finally being made available to colleges to honour their pay deal with lecturers. How much additional funding will the cabinet secretary make available to local authorities to allow them to address teachers’ concerns about salary and workload, thereby avoiding industrial action in our schools?

Clearly, a process of negotiation must be undertaken with the teaching trade unions as part of the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers with which Mr Gray will be familiar. As a member of the SNCT, the Government will, of course, participate in those discussions and we look forward to progressing them in the period that lies ahead.

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary. Does he agree that the national picture on teacher workload varies? That variation is often driven by the ways in which local authorities track, monitor, report and record attainment data, for example. Will he outline what action the Government has taken to ensure greater consistency across Scotland when it comes to what our local authorities ask of Scotland’s teachers?

As part of the work that we all committed to do, which was long before I became the education secretary, I asked local authorities to reduce the workload and the bureaucracy that is applied to the teaching profession. I look to local authorities to exercise considered judgment on the collection of information through tracking and monitoring to ensure that that is appropriate and commensurate with their responsibilities.

As I indicated in my answer to Tavish Scott, I asked Education Scotland to undertake a focused review of the demands that are placed on schools by local authorities in relation to the curriculum for excellence. It found that there were a number of local authorities where there was a significant variation in the extent to which actions have been taken and in the effectiveness of those actions. I continue to monitor the progress that has been made to support improvement to address the specific issues and to share best practice among authorities.

The latest inflation figures released this morning show a four-year high of 2.9 per cent. The expectation is that the figure will continue to rise due to fallout from Brexit. The public sector pay cap has seen massive erosion in the value of salaries. Teachers are considering strike action and rising inflation is only going to make the situation worse for them. How much loss to the value of teachers’ pay is the Scottish Government willing to accept before it will act on the pay freeze?

As I have indicated, in no way am I trying to avoid my responsibility for public sector pay. I was the finance minister here for nine years. I made a clear judgment, which I was open about with Parliament, that, in order to protect public sector employment in a period of significant fiscal restraint applied to us by the United Kingdom Government, of which Tavish Scott and the Conservatives were supporters, I had to apply pay constraint to public sector employees.

I accept that, in the situation that we now face, with pay restraint in the context of rising inflation, it is difficult to support such an approach, given the pressures on individual public sector workers. The Government will look carefully at public sector pay, as part of our negotiations with trade unions, and as part of the budget preparations that the Government undertakes on an annual basis.

Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme

To ask the Scottish Government what the final cost will be of the Edinburgh Glasgow improvement programme. (S5T-00586)

As I recently informed the Parliament, Network Rail has confirmed a further delay to the route electrification. We await further advice from Network Rail on the costs arising from the delay. Tomorrow, Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, will be in front of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, of which Mr Greene is a member.

The Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme was supposed to cost the taxpayer £742 million. However, just under a year ago it was reported that the cost had risen by £32 million. A further delay was announced, for the replacement of faulty electrical equipment, which might incur additional staffing costs.

Does the minister expect further increases in the cost of the improvement programme? More important, does he think that the additional costs will impact other rail projects or rail funding in general?

I thank Jamie Greene for the question and the tone in which he asked it. He will be aware that the responsibility for delivery of the project is Network Rail’s; Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government are the client and the funder. We have a funding ceiling within which we must work, and I do not expect it to be breached. I assume that that was the member’s question.

There has been a further delay. We will continue to have discussions with Network Rail, and I defer to Network Rail on the potential cost increases; it will have to get back to us on that. From a Scottish Government perspective, the most recent report on cost increases is the independent report from EY, which the committee has had sight of.

The problem is shared with the United Kingdom Government. Network Rail is a reclassified body under the Department for Transport, and the UK Government faces issues with Network Rail that are similar to those that the Scottish Government is facing. Now that the UK Government has been appointed—Cabinet members have certainly been appointed—I am keen to sit down with the railway minister in the UK Government as soon as possible to find some sort of shared solution. It is not acceptable that we, as the client, fund major projects for which Network Rail—which is responsible for delivery—is not accountable to this Government or this Parliament.

The minister is passing the buck to Network Rail, to some extent. Surely, as the minister in charge of transport in Scotland, he must have some oversight and can share with Parliament the costs of the project.

We know that electric trains will not be delivered on the Edinburgh to Glasgow line until October, nearly a year after the 2016 deadline. There have been a range of problems, including components breaking down, poor project management, unforeseen corrective action and a delay in the energisation of the overhead cables. A spokesman for the Scottish Government has said that that is “wholly unacceptable”.

What assurances can the minister give to passengers in Scotland, who have already suffered significant disruption on the line and must now wait potentially until the autumn for electric trains to be in operation? Does he agree that that is unacceptable?

Of course I agree that that is unacceptable, but I take issue with one or two things that Jamie Greene said. I am sure that he does not expect me, as the transport minister, to be literally on the wires and lines, delivering the project. It is being delivered by Network Rail. We have a responsibility as the funder—we are the client—but the project is being delivered by Network Rail, which is a reclassified body under the UK Government’s Department for Transport.

Any delay in a project is unacceptable. I informed the committee—no doubt, under the member’s questioning—that we expected electric services to come on to the route in July this year but that it is now going to be October, which is extremely disappointing. However, let me make a comparison. In some projects south of the border, there have been delays of not months but years—four years, in the case of the trans-Pennine electrification. We are in a better position.

I agree that it is wholly unacceptable that Network Rail continues to say to me that it is unable to deliver the project despite our having provided the funding as the client and funder.

To reassure passengers, we have a project board that is helping to flush out some of the issues much earlier than we would have had sight of them before. My commitment to Parliament is to continue to keep it and the relevant committee updated whenever I get that information from Network Rail.

I would welcome a discussion with parties across the chamber. Even if they do not agree with the full devolution of Network Rail—I respect that that might be their position—I ask them to at least think about the devolution of infrastructure projects, because it is unacceptable that we fund these projects yet the accountability remains with Network Rail as a reclassified body under the Department for Transport.

Will the minister confirm that the original cost of EGIP was quite a lot higher and that the idea of running longer trains less frequently means that there have been huge savings on signalling as well as less congestion, which I imagine is also better for the environment?

Yes, there have been cost savings not only on this project but on some others. However, I reiterate that that does not take away from the fact that we have seen a cost increase from our revised estimates, which has come about because Network Rail failed to notice some circumstances that it should have been able to foresee.

We will wait for Network Rail to give a further update on what further delay there may be on EGIP that may potentially lead to a cost increase. We are not letting Network Rail off the hook. Having said that, I am confident that the many railway projects that we are looking to deliver in control period 5 can be delivered within the funding ceiling to which we have committed.

There have been savings not just on EGIP but on other projects. However, that does not take away from the fact that this is disappointing news and Network Rail should be held to account not just by the Department for Transport but by this Parliament and this Government.

The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—the train drivers’ union, ASLEF—says that EGIP has been mismanaged and has lacked political leadership from both Network Rail and the Scottish Government. As the Scottish Government is ultimately responsible for the project, despite the minister perhaps trying to suggest otherwise, does he accept that there has been a failure of political leadership on EGIP from the start? What will he do now to reassure the workforce, the passengers and the taxpayers that the Scottish Government should be trusted any longer with meeting the railway infrastructure needs of this country?

That question is beyond ludicrous for a number of reasons. EGIP has already delivered on many occasions. In December 2010, there was the electrification of Haymarket tunnel, and we took political leadership on that. In December 2013, the transformed Haymarket station opened to passengers on time and on budget as part of EGIP. In May 2014, there was the electrification of the Glasgow to Cumbernauld line—Neil Bibby forgot to mention that. In May 2015, we had the Haymarket to Inverkeithing resignalling—the member completely forgot to mention that. In December 2016, the Edinburgh Gateway rail-tram interchange opened to all passengers. Of course, the member forgot to mention all of that.

EGIP has achieved many of its milestones, and we have funded the achievement of those milestones—Neil Bibby should recognise that. If the member wants examples of political leadership on the railways, on top of EGIP, I can say that we delivered the Borders railway, the Airdrie to Bathgate link and electrification of the Cumbernauld line. A project that affects the member’s constituency is the Paisley corridor improvements. There have been many other rail projects, as well.

I will take no lessons from Neil Bibby when it comes to the management of our railways. I suggest that he look to his own Labour colleague, the former United Kingdom transport minister, Tom Harris, who said:

“The Scottish Government is responsible for the strategic direction and funding of the Scottish rail network, but this responsibility cannot be properly exercised while Network Rail remains answerable to the UK Government.”

He added that Reform Scotland, the think tank that he was working with at the time,

“believes that Network Rail in Scotland should be fully accountable to the Scottish Government, and that means it must be devolved.”

That is from somebody who was a transport minister in a UK Labour Government. I suggest to Neil Bibby that, instead of carping from the sidelines, he should take some expert advice on how to manage our railways.

People will be incredibly frustrated about the delay, not least because the drip, drip of information prevents anyone from taking full responsibility. Will the minister tell Parliament on what date he was informed of the potential delays to the project? Is he willing to publish minutes of all the meetings in which the delay was discussed?

On the documentation about the delay, I have a letter from Mark Carne that was sent to me on 25 May, which I have written to the committee’s convener about. I will discuss with my officials whether a copy of that letter of 25 May can be published.

I share Liam Kerr’s and the public’s frustration about

“the drip, drip of information”

that we tend to get from Network Rail. As I continue to say, Network Rail is ultimately accountable to the UK Government, under the Department for Transport, as a reclassified body. I would like a conversation with Mr Kerr and members across the chamber about how we can rebalance the situation and ensure that Network Rail is accountable to this Parliament and this Government.

On the main part of the member’s question, I will look into whether the latest letter that I received from Mark Carne can be released.